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Rockwell Collins Accelerates With Lean Engineering

Jan. 13, 2011
Streamlined product-development processes cut cycle times, reduce time-to-market.

Rockwell Collins Inc. is in a race with global suppliers to expand into emerging markets, such as Russia, China, India and Brazil. Diversifying into new markets has never been more important for the aviation electronics and communication equipment manufacturer, with the United States and Europe clamping down on defense budgets.

In late 2010 Rockwell made several announcements regarding agreements the company signed with China's state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China to provide systems for Comac's C919 aircraft. The company also is working with Russia's Irkut Corp. to build the MS-21 commercial aircraft and is competing to provide technology for Brazil's next-generation tanker platform, says Nan Mattai, Rockwell's senior vice president of engineering and technology.

Nan Mattai:
"We standardize our processes into what I call a technical-consistent process. We standardize the major tools we utilize."

The global expansion means aerospace manufacturers must make improving time-to-market a priority. One of the ways Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Rockwell Collins has hastened the product-development process is through lean engineering. The company began its lean engineering initiative in the 2001-2002 timeframe. Rockwell adopted lean techniques being applied to its plant floors to standardize the engineering process.

"We standardize our processes into what I call a technical-consistent process," Mattai says. "We standardize the major tools we utilize." The company's lean engineering system is called Core Process Optimization and includes an upstream and downstream approach. That means the company focuses on its pursuit and order-capture processes as well as how the design and development processes transition to manufacturing, Mattai says.

Common Engineering Tools Implemented

Rockwell implemented common engineering tools that allow engineers to move across different business segments in a more streamlined fashion, Mattai says. Downstream the company introduced a "manufacturing introductory index" that helps transition designs to the plant floor and a manufacturing readiness level that assesses where a product is in the development process. So Level 1 may be simply a design idea, whereas Level 9 is a product realization.

"The manufacturing readiness level assesses how robust a design is for transition into the factory," Mattai says. "So it looks at whether you've completed your qualification test, have you put the right infrastructure from a test-equipment standpoint in the factory, have the build operators been trained, have the technicians been trained, have you run a pilot line. It's assessing those areas to evaluate your readiness for factory transition."

Rockwell Collins systems engineers perform tests in a Blagnac, France, lab on the crew alert system for the AgustaWest-land AW149 and AW101 helicopter programs.
Photo: Rockwell Collins

The lean engineering processes help Rockwell move engineers where they're most needed, optimize research and development dollars and accelerate the engineers' learning curve as they move from the government side of the business to the commercial side, Mattai says. The result has been an average cycle-time reduction of 20% to 30% across various projects over a three-year period, according to Mattai.

As part of the engineering team's lean adoption, the company also has implemented a variation of a "pull system." That is, the engineers are closely aligned with internal and external customers to ensure they're adhering to customer requirements. Some of this engagement occurs in customer labs, such as the Air Force Research Lab, or working with internal business units during their strategic-planning sessions to understand their needs, technology gaps and to infuse innovative thinking into their processes, Mattai says.

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